Poker – High-Low Poker

High-Low Poker

Most people grow up thinking of poker as a game of royal flushes, full houses, flushes, and straights, and indeed, in most forms of poker, these kinds of hands win a lot of money.

There are also several kinds of poker where these “powerful” hands are worthless. Perhaps they were invented by someone who felt he never got his fair share of good cards, but in games like Razz-which is 7-card stud played for low-the player with the LOWEST hand wins the pot.

Today, though, we’re going to talk about a form of poker that is a hybrid of these other two kinds of poker, a combination of the high-only games and the low-only games: high-low poker.

In a high-low game (which I’ll be calling hi-lo from now on), the player owning the highest hand wins half the pot, and the player owning the lowest hand wins the other half. So, for example, in a 7-stud hi-lo game, if the following three hands were around at the finish…

(Cards that are bold or dark are hole cards.)

Player A               Player B               Player C

Player A:  2h-4h-6d-9s-7c-Kd-Ad

Player B:  Kh-Ks-2d-4d-4c-7d-9c

Player C:  5d-5s-5h-8h-Js-4s-Qd

Players A and C would take the money. Player A has a “7-low,” that is, he can form a 5-card poker hand comprised of an 7, 6, 4, 2 and Ace. Player C has three of a kind-three fives.

Player B is stuck in the middle. His two pair (Kings and Fours) don’t beat Player C’s trips, and his King-low (because of the pairs, the five lowest cards Player B can assemble without including a pair are K, 9, 7, 4, 2) isn’t as low as Player A’s 7-low.

Don’t race out to play hi-low poker just yet, though, because there are a few critically important rules and considerations you still need to learn.

Hand Rankings in Low Poker

As we’ve seen in the examples, a low hand is defined by the highest card in the hand; someone holding 8-5-4-3-2 would announce he has an 8-low. If someone else says “me, too,” you might hear the first player say “8-5” (or in poker slang he might say “eighty-five”) and the second player say “you win” if he held 8-6-4-3-2, which is an “8-6” low. This is similar to what happens in high poker, where if two players each hold a pair of Kings, the next highest card decides the hand (for example, K-K-J-10-4 beats K-K-10-9-8). In low poker, if two players have similar lows, you look at the next highest of the low cards, until someone holds a lower one. For example, a player holding 8-6-5-4-3 beats a player holding 8-7-4-3-2, and a player holding 7-5-3-2-A beats a player holding 7-5-4-2-A.

The Eight Qualifier Rule

In most forms of hi-lo poker, for a hand to win the low side, it must be an 8-low, or better. This “qualifying” feature of the game is usually identified in the game’s name. For example, most of the time when 7-stud is dealt in a hi-lo form, the game is called “7-Card Stud, Eight-or-Better for Low,” or just “7-Card Stud, Eight-or-Better.”

Suppose we stick with the same sample hand I used above:

Player A               Player B               Player C

Player A: 2h-4h-6d-9s-7c-Kd-Ad

Player B: Kh-Ks-2d-4d-4c-7d-9c

Player C: 5d-5s-5h-8h-Js-4s-Qd

But suppose now we make the game 7-Card Stud, Eight-or-Better, and gave Player A, for his final card, not the Ace of Diamonds, but instead the 10 of Hearts. In that case, Player C would win the entire pot, because Player A’s best low hand is 9-7-6-4-2. He has a 9-low, and a 9-low is useless in an “Eight or Better” game. Only an 8-low (or better, such as a 7-low, 6-low, or 5-low), qualifies for winning the low half.

Such endings, where a player is drawing at a promising low, but misses, are common and frustrating in 7-Card Stud, Eight-or-Better games. For example, suppose you start off with 2d-3d-4d-5d. This is the sort of start that professional hi-lo players dream about. Four very low cards that also have terrific high potential: either an Ace or a Six will make a low straight, and any Diamond will give this player a flush. It is a magnificent hi-lo starting hand.

(In hi-lo games, the fact that A-2-3-4-5 is also a straight doesn’t keep it from being the best possible low hand; in certain forms of low-only poker, if a hand is a straight, it isn’t considered low.)

Yet this dream can turn into a nightmare, because poker is a five-card game, not a four-card game. If the player who starts 2d-3d-4d-5d finishes with 9s-Kc-Jh, the player now has a completely worthless hand. He has not “qualified” for low, because his 9-5-4-3-2 isn’t an 8-low or better, and his best high hand is K-J-9-5-4, and that collection of junk isn’t going to win the high side of many pots.

Nonetheless, just because the dream start 2d-3d-4d-5d won’t always connect doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hope to start that way. This kind of hand is your goal, because it has the potential to win BOTH high and low. It has the potential not merely to split half the pot, but to “scoop” or “hog” the whole pot.

The Cardinal Rules of Hi-Lo Poker

When trying to figure out what kind of starting hands to play in any form of hi-lo poker, keep these two principles in mind:

  1. You prefer hands that have a chance to win the entire pot, not just half of it, even though you might wind up settling for half of it.
  2. Hands that start off low can “accidentally” wind up high… but hands that start high can’t become low.

For example, suppose you start off with 4-5-6 in a 7-Card Stud, Eight-or-Better game. This is a nice hand, much better than an average start, because you hold three cards to a 6-low and they also have nice potential to turn into a straight. Yet even if you fail to make the 6-low or the straight, your hand still might turn out nicely. Suppose your final four cards were 5-8-6-5; you’d have wound up with a full house when you started off trying to make a low hand.

High-Only Hands are Uni-Directional

It’s hard, and sometimes impossible, for the reverse to happen, though. If your first three cards are K-K-Q, you cannot make a low hand in an Eight-or-better game. You need five cards that are eight or lower to do that, and with only four cards left to come, you can’t get there. You are irrevocably committed to playing for high.

That doesn’t mean you should immediately throw the K-K-Q away, especially if you don’t see any other Kings or Queens in anyone else’s hand. In fact, such a hand can often be worth a raise, in an effort to drive out potential low hands. But if your high hand doesn’t improve, and if you start to see boards like 4-5-6 and A-3-4, you are probably in very bad trouble, because

  1. a) You are in all likelihood playing for only half the pot, because someone will probably make a low hand, and
  2. b) Those low opposing hands might easily turn into a straight, or Aces-up, or something like 3 Threes, meaning that you won’t even win the high half.

Not all hi-lo games employ the Eight-or-Better qualifier, and in a game that doesn’t, the K-K-Q starting hand still has a chance to get the low half. Not a good chance, not even a poor chance, but at least a chance. In Eight-or-Better, it has zero chance.

In cardrooms and casinos, the two games you are most likely to see played in hi-lo form are 7-Card Stud, Eight-or-Better, and Omaha Eight-or-Better. Most of the hi-lo poker played in card casinos involves the eight-qualifier.

The presence of the eight-qualifier gives the high-only hands like K-K-Q more hope, because if no one makes a qualifying low hand, the best high hand takes the whole pot, giving high hands some scooping potential. A hand like 7-5-4-3-2, while very nice for the low side, has no scooping potential, unless everyone else folds.

Home Game Hi-Lo and the Declare Rule

In home poker games, you will very often see hi-lo games played without a qualifier, but instead with a “declare.” This means that after all the cards have been dealt out, each player takes two chips out of sight underneath the table, and places either zero, one, or two chips in his hand. Everyone still in the pot brings one hand back up into view, and everyone opens that hand simultaneously.

If you place zero chips in your hand, your are “declaring” for low. If you place one chip in your hand, you are declaring for high, and if you place two chips in your hand, you are declaring for both. If you declare both ways, you have to win both ways, which can make a hand like A-2-3-4-5 a bit scary. You have an immortal lock for low, but if someone else has a flush, and you’ve declared both ways, your hand wins nothing.

The rules about who wins the money in this situation vary from game to game. In some games, the flush that knocked off the dual-declarer gets the whole pot. In others, the flush would get half the pot and the next best low declarer would get the other half. If you declare both ways, and everyone else declares in a single direction (for example, you declare “both” and everyone else declares high), whoever has the best hand in that one direction takes the whole pot; that you also declared in an additional, uncontested direction is irrelevant.

“Declare” poker is never used in public cardrooms or casinos; it can lead to too many arguments. But it is pretty common in home games, and can make for some fascinating strategic decisions, because if you are the only person who declares in a particular direction, you win that direction, regardless of your hand. “Declare” poker gives a player who is skilled at reading his opponents a bigger edge than he would have in low-qualifier poker.

I have seen players who had hands like three Jacks on board declare for Low and win, because everyone else in the hand declared high. It’s not common, but it can happen.

If you play hi-lo declare, make sure you understand the game’s ground rules. In some games, if you declare both ways and get TIED one way you lose everything; in others, you would win ¾ of the pot. Neither rule is inherently better than the other; just make sure you understand which rule is in force in your game.

Betting After the Declare

Another important aspect of “declare” poker is whether or not there is another round of betting after the declare. If there is, a player who has declared in one direction while everyone else has declared in the other owns an enviable position. He can and should put in every possible raise, because he can’t lose.

My all-time favorite hi-lo declare hand occurred in a 10-20 private game in Atlanta, Georgia.

This game was actually a six-card stud hi-lo declare game, where you had a chance to replace a card on the end rather than getting a seventh card you could keep, but the same principles apply.

Holding A-4-6-3-6-J, I had a very promising draw; going to the final card (the replace of the ugly Jack I’d caught the round before). I had a chance to make a 6-low, three sixes, or Aces-up, and to the other players, who were staring only at the 4-6-3-6, it looked like I could make a low straight.

Unfortunately, this powerful draw turned into a bunch of junk on the end when my final card was a King. My final hand was a pair of sixes for high and a King-low for low, and I knew neither of these hands had any chance whatsoever of winning in a showdown.

I considered the usual play of just declaring one way and hoping to be the only person declaring that way, but one of my opponents was very obviously going high and another seemed almost certain to be going low; I didn’t like my chances. But the pot was huge; there had been a lot of betting and raising throughout, and I was struck by a sudden inspiration.

Andy’s Sudden Inspiration

When we put our hands under the table, I put two chips in my hand, and when we all opened up, everyone saw my two-way declaration, and I made the opening $20 bet (the rule in our game was that a two-way declarer bet first after the declare).

This declare and bet was tantamount to announcing that I had made a low straight and was daring anyone to waste $20 to prove otherwise.

There were three players left in the pot. The first of these held a pair of Aces, it turned out. He knew me pretty well, and told me later that he suspected I was pulling some sort of move, but was afraid of player #3, who had four high cards on board and could easily have had two pair or a big straight, so he folded.

Player #3 had indeed held a high straight draw, it turned out, but missed; he had nothing-couldn’t even have beaten my pair of sixes-and folded pretty quickly.

Player #4 had a reasonable low, 8-7-something-something-something. But even with about $1,000 in the pot, he folded, because obviously I was not going to declare both ways and risk half of a huge pot, unless I was not afraid of his apparent 8-low or even the threat of a 7-low.

I raked in the pot, and would not had said a word, because I realized a move like this was FAR too useful to brag about; it could be quite profitable again. But a player who had been out of the game had seen my hole cards, and knew I’d had nothing. He’d kept his mouth shut during the betting-I’d have strangled him if he hadn’t-but with the pot over, he asked, with wide-eyed amazement, “WHAT DID YOU JUST DO!?!”

With that, I knew the jig was up, and I figured I might as well accept the stunned plaudits of my opponents, so I flipped my hand up on the board, and everyone in that game was talking about that hand for weeks.

I didn’t mind, actually. The ego-stroking aside, for the next two years, every time I came up with two chips in my hand at the end of a pot, I got a lot of $20 calls from players who couldn’t beat a legitimate two-way hand but who remembered “Andy’s famous bluff win.” I probably made an extra $1,000 that way, $20 at a time.

I actually tried it again about two months later, and it worked AGAIN, because the first player to act after me (bless his insightful soul) pronounced “I’m not going to pay you $20 every time you make a low straight, just because you bluffed us all out once.” The other remaining players decided this was a good idea and didn’t call either. Of course, since no one had seen my hole cards, I didn’t show the hand.

Sound, Patient, Fundamental Play Wins the Money

My “famous bluff move” is a fond memory, but it isn’t sound, fundamental poker; it was just an inspired act of desperation when I had nothing else left to try.

In your hi-lo games, stick to hands with two-way potential, get out quickly with deadly middle cards like nines and tens (they’re not low enough to win low and they’re not high enough to win high), and be patient. One of the reasons players like hi-lo is that the dual nature of the game DOES create more reasonable starting hands than you find in one-way games. You should be able to participate in plenty of hands, while your anxious-to-play opponents will be able to find even more.

Unfortunately, cardrooms and casinos don’t like hi-lo games much, for an understandable (from their perspective) reason: The time required to split up the pots means fewer hands played per hour, and fewer hands played per hour means less money taken in by the casino.

In future articles, I’ll offer some more specific advice for 7-Card Stud, Eight-or-Better, and Omaha Eight-or-Better.